Election is a sign of change - but army still holds sway in Myanmar
Published 07/11/2015 | 02:30
Tomorrow, the people of Myanmar, also known as Burma, will go to the polls some five years after their country slowly began emerging from decades of strict military dictatorship. This once heavily cloistered nation has since experienced a tentative opening up.
The US and EU began loosening sanctions after changes including the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her pro-democracy struggle, and an easing of repressive laws showed the government of President Thein Sein had some commitment to reform. But though the brutal military junta may be no more, Myanmar's army remains key. Not only does it wield control over the current government, it also has the power to appoint a quarter of parliamentary seats and the heads of several important ministries.
Tomorrow, all eyes will be on the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which is led by Ms Suu Kyi. Many believe it may win a majority of seats, despite having boycotted the last general election in 2010, a ballot that was widely viewed as rigged. However, NLD members, including Ms Suu Kyi, won parliamentary seats in by-elections held three years ago.
When I visited Myanmar last year, it was clear Ms Suu Kyi's popularity remains undimmed, even if she faces increasing criticism internationally for not taking a stronger position on the government's persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority based mostly in the country's southwestern flank.
Her face not only adorned the front pages of newspapers and magazines, it had even become a part of Myanmar's fledgling tourism sector. In the markets of Yangon, the country's commercial capital, you can buy key rings, T-shirts, badges and other paraphernalia featuring the woman Burmese call The Lady. Many I met referred to her reverentially as "the mother of the nation".
But while Ms Suu Kyi is arguably the most popular figure in the country, she remains constitutionally barred from her goal of running for the presidency due to a clause in the military-drafted constitution that forbids those with children or spouses who hold citizenship in other countries from the post. Ms Suu Kyi has two sons with her deceased British husband. During my trip last summer, I saw NLD members campaigning for reform of the constitution, collecting more than five million signatures in support of their call. So far, however, their efforts have been stymied.
Tomorrow's elections come at a crucial juncture. The buzz that accompanied Myanmar's first steps towards democracy just a few years ago has now given way to worries that its transition is stalling. Of concern is the plight of the Rohingya, now displaced in their thousands, and the related emergence of a populist Buddhist movement that stirs anti-Muslim sentiment, which has often erupted into violence across the country, leaving hundreds dead.
A former UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar did not mince their words, saying the pattern of "widespread and systematic human rights violations" against the Rohingya may constitute crimes against humanity.
When I met Ashin Wirathu, a controversial Buddhist monk who has driven much of the anti-Muslim campaign in recent years, he was unrepentant and trotted out a litany of conspiracy theories about the country's Muslims, which include ethnic Chinese as well as Rohingya. Ms Suu Kyi's supporters defend her relative silence on this issue, arguing she cannot take the political risk of alienating the monks. Mr Wirathu, who told me he would like to see Ms Suu Kyi as president one day, was smug when he talked of the enormous influence wielded by monks, particularly in rural areas. "The people listen to us," he said with a smile.
Despite attempts to portray this changing Myanmar as open for business, the foreign investment many expected has not happened at anticipated levels and the economy remains hobbled. Potential investors are wary of navigating the country's opaque, quasi-military bureaucracy and its poor infrastructure is another deterrent. Human rights groups have raised concerns about an apparent retreat from newly granted press freedoms - last year five journalists were given long prison sentences after publishing a controversial article on an armaments factory.
If Ms Suu Kyi's NLD manages to sweep the polls tomorrow, there is little to indicate that they will be able to do much within the confines of a constitutional framework that overwhelmingly favours the military. The army's power also stems from its economic muscle through land and commercial ownership.
Many Burmese believe the country's officer class have benefited the most from the lifting of economic sanctions and therefore see little need in pursuing any more significant reforms. As one activist told me ruefully last summer: "Yes, there have been changes, welcome changes, but we all know the military are still the ones who are really in charge."